Editor's note: The following article, authored in connection with the exhibition Colors of the West: The Paintings of Birger Sandzén on view at the Palm Springs Art Museum April 17 - September 12, 2010, was reprinted in Resource Library on May 14, 2010 with permission of the Palm Springs Art Museum. If you have questions or comments regarding the article and related text, please contact the Palm Springs Art Museum directly through either this phone number or web address:



Colors of the West: The Paintings of Birger Sandzén

April 17 - September 12, 2010


The Palm Springs Art Museum is presenting Colors of the West: The Paintings of Birger Sandzén, a major exhibition of the works of Post-Impressionist painter Sven Birger Sandzén (1871-1954). Sandzén's personal style of bold color with thickly applied masses of paint earned him the title "the American Van Gogh." His vibrant paintings of prairie and western landscapes have been relatively unknown outside the Midwest until recently, and this exhibition is the first major West Coast exhibition of Sandzén's work since 1948. It will run at the museum from April 17 through September 12, 2010.


About the exhibition:

The exhibition features more than 60 paintings, watercolors and prints that showcase Sandzén's western landscapes. Works in the exhibition are drawn mainly from the Birger Sandzén Memorial Gallery in Lindsborg, Kansas, the Greenough Trust and loans from private collections. The majority of works depict scenes from Kansas, Colorado, Utah and the Southwest that were created during Sandzén's mature period (1916-1935). Unlike many of his contemporaries, Sandzén often worked in a monumental scale (60 x 80 inches), as seen in his 1928 work Hour of Splendor, Bryce Canyon, Utah and his 1920 work, Snow and Mountain.

The exhibition also includes select historical paintings and artworks that demonstrate the development of his unique aesthetic from his early student years in Sweden and Paris to pointillist-style paintings of 1910-12. It also includes several still lifes and portraits, watercolors and graphics. Sandzén's graphic works are as expressive and dramatic as his paintings, translating into black and white the light and intensity of his oils. A selection of woodcuts, linocuts and lithographs will also be included.

This exhibit is organized by the Palm Springs Art Museum in conjunction with the Birger Sandzén Memorial Art Gallery in Lindsborg, Kansas.


About Birger Sandzén:

Born Sven Birger Sandzén in Blidsberg, Västergötland, Sweden in 1871, Sandzén trained in Stockholm with Anders Zorn and later in Paris with Edmond-Francois Aman-Jean participating in its famous fin de siècle milieu. Aman-Jean is a pointillist Post-Impressionist painter who shared a studio with George Seurat. Considered a member of Sweden's Konstnärsforbundet (Artist League School), Sandzén's early training provided a foundation in art that stressed the importance of form, color, personal expression and artistic freedom as opposed to the academic standards of the time. The Art School of the Artists' League played an important part in the development of modern Swedish art.

In 1894, at the age of 23, Sandzén immigrated to the United States and settled in the center of the American prairie in Lindsborg, Kansas where he was invited to become a language professor and later art professor at Bethany College. During the first decade of life in Kansas, Sandzén's palette began to change which the artist directly contributed to the atmosphere and geology of the West. In 1908, he made his first of many trips to Colorado and beginning in 1915 became a regular visitor to Santa Fe and Taos, New Mexico, later becoming a member of the Taos Society of Artists. He enthusiastically described the West ­ prairie, mountains and deserts ­ as a major influence in his painting, not only for its dramatic landforms but also its unique color and light that he felt was a result of the dry climate. "Out there in the West," he explained, "a painter could develop a style of his own to fit the country."

Impressed by the scale and physicality of mountain structure and the intense brilliance of light and colors of the West, Sandzén applied the same coloristic sensibility to low-lying lands of the prairies as he did to his monumental mountain scenes. The originality of the artist's aesthetic -- his use of high-key colors, expressive application of paint and signature brush strokes -- sets Sandzén apart from his contemporaries such as Edgar Payne, William Wendt, Paul Lauritz and the Taos painters.

A devoted teacher, Sandzén was equally dedicated to his community, donating numerous paintings to public schools, universities, libraries, and other civic organizations in his hometown of Lindsborg and throughout Kansas. In the mid-1930s he participated in the Federal W.P.A. program painting post office murals for Lindsborg, Halstead and Belleville Kansas. He also helped found numerous print and artist clubs including the Prairie Print Makers Society and the Prairie Watercolor Painters.

In 1940, Sandzén was honored by the Swedish government for promoting cultural relations between the United States and Sweden and was awarded both the Royal Order of Vasa as well as the Order of the North Star. He also received honorary doctorates from various institutions, including Midland Lutheran College, the University of Nebraska, and Kansas State University. Following Sandzén's death in 1954, the Birger Sandzén Memorial Gallery opened in the grounds of Bethany College in 1956.


Article for the exhibition:


A Modernist on the Western Prairie

by Christine Giles


Post-Impressionist in his use of color and expressionist in technique, Birger Sandzén produced vibrant paintings of prairie and western landscapes from Kansas to the California coast. Over the course of his career in the United States, his style evolved from pointillism to a bolder use of color and thicker application of paint, earning him the title of the "American Van Gogh." Yet, perhaps due in part to his isolation in a rural midwestern town, Sandzén's contribution to twentieth-century American painting has yet to be fully recognized and appreciated.

It is in his modernist application of intense color and thick impasto to the depiction of regional landscape, that Sandzén's originality can most keenly be felt. On moving to Kansas, he was impressed with the intense brilliance of light in the West and by the imposing scale of mountain ranges of Colorado, which made an immediate impact on the content and style of his painting. Yet, Sandzén also applied the same coloristic sensibility to the low-lying, less obviously dramatic features of the prairies as he did to his monumental mountain scenes. The distinctiveness of the artist's aesthetic -- his use of high-key colors, the expressive application of paint and signature brush strokes -- and his willingness to apply abstract techniques to realist subjects, sets Sandzén apart from his contemporaries, such as California painters Edgar Payne, William Wendt, Paul Lauritz, and the Taos Society of Artists. Sandzén was aware of his unique position in American art, writing in 1929: "I do not belong anywhere among our groups. I am too 'radical' or too 'conservative,' or my use of color is 'strange'. However, joy in color is something normal." Sandzén believed that the natural dry climate of the West resulted in a "great clearness" and intensity of color not experienced in more humid climates.

While the artist attributed his use of color to the dry climate of the West, it was his early art training in Sweden and Paris that gave him an appreciation for the expressive potential of non-naturalistic color, and his continued interest in the development of modernism in both Europe and the U.S. that spurred him to embark in a new direction.


The Early Years

Born in 1871, in Blidsberg, Västergötland, Sweden on the eve of the first Impressionist exhibition in Paris in 1872, Sandzén's formative years coincided with an era that would witness dramatic changes in European art over the next two decades in the development of Modernism. Deciding to devote his career to fine art, Sandzén moved to Stockholm with the goal of entering the Royal Academy. His inability to enroll in the Academy, however, may have proved fortuitous. Instead, he joined the Konstnärsforbundet (Artist League School), where he studied under Anders Zorn and Richard Bergh. These mentors stressed the importance of form, color, personal expression, and artistic freedom, as opposed to the academic standards of the time. In 1894, Sandzén traveled to Paris and for six months studied with post-Impressionist Edmond-Francois Aman-Jean, further exposing him to the importance of light and color in painting.

In his forward for Birger Sandzén: An Illustrated Biography by Emory Lindquist (1993), William H. Gerdts writes:

We recognize in Sandzén's art the ultimate impact of impressionism, which the artist claimed was "the first sign of recovery. Color will no longer be an unimportant element in painting but an essential feature." Yet Sandzen was not an impressionist, a movement long accepted in both Europe and American by the time he achieved his artistic maturity. He was very much a modern artist.

Impressionism is characterized by discarding the traditional use of line in favor of broken patches of contrasting color to develop form and perspective. It was thought that when a painting was viewed from a distance, the eye would "optically blend" the scene in a more natural vibration of color. At the time Impressionism was viewed by artists and supportive critics as not only revolutionary in the field of art and thought, but also signaled a physiological revolution of the human eye affecting our perception of the sensation of light and color.

In describing his color technique, Sandzén was clearly aware of these concepts of color and perception. Quoting from the exhibition catalogue, Sandzén and the New Land, the artist writes:

In the atmosphere in which the intense light and vibration and ring of color produce the great power of light, which is often the situation in the dry air of the Southwest -- it is clear that a color technique should be used that emphasizes the most characteristic feature of the landscape. One must then use pure colors which refract each other, but which through distance assimilate for the eye -- the so called "optical" blending -- since the usual blending on the palette, the "pigmented blending" is not intensive enough and does not "vibrate."

Concerned about his future, before leaving for Paris, Sandzén had written a letter to the President of Bethany College in Lindsborg, Kansas requesting a teaching position. Sweden was experiencing a kind of "American fever" with large numbers of Swedes emigrating to the American West. As a child, Sandzén had read about the American West and was intrigued by descriptions of rural and rugged countryside and stories about North American Indians. While in Paris, he studied and socialized with a group of American artists, and discussions about the American West further piqued his interest. His decision to emigrate was based on the prospects he believed the American West would provide for an artist, and in 1894, at the age of twenty-three, Sandzén moved to the rural farming community of Lindsborg, where he remained until his death in 1954.

Sandzén spent his first decade in Kansas adjusting to his new life and practicing his art as time allowed. He took frequent long walks along the Smoky Valley savoring the "brilliant yellow and red along the creeks, gold buffalo grass on the prairie, and large, bright sunflowers." But it was not until his second decade in Kansas that we begin to see the development of the intense, radiant color that was to characterize his unique style. Several factors and experiences abroad contributed to this change. In 1905-06, Sandzén embarked on a seventeen-month art tour of Europe, traveling to Sweden, Germany, Italy, Spain and Paris focusing on historical and modern trends in art. His visit to Paris followed the first exhibition of les Fauves at the Paris Salon d'Automne in 1905. Whether Sandzén saw this show is not known, but he would most likely have been aware of it. After his return to Kansas, Sandzén destroyed the paintings in his studio; his motive for such a drastic act is not clear, yet it plainly signaled a rupture with the past and a desire to forge a new direction. A few years later, between 1908-1912, Sandzén adopted a pointillist style, and although short lived, this change signaled the beginning of a progression to a new style.


A Style of His Own

In pursuit of new subjects, Sandzén began to take extended art trips throughout the West, a practice that continued throughout his career. In 1908, he made his first trip to Colorado, and in 1913, began a series of regular visits to Boulder, Manitou Springs, Colorado Springs, and Estes Park that continued for three decades. In 1915, Sandzén traveled to New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and California. While in Santa Fe, he befriended artists Marsden Hartley, B.J.O. Nordfeldt, and Raymond Jonson and later, in 1922, became an associate member of the Taos Society of Artists, exhibiting with the group. "Out there in the West," he explained, "a painter could develop a style of his own to fit the country."

While Sandzén nurtured his talent in his studio in Kansas, it was his experiences in the far western regions of the U.S., especially Colorado, that were to have a profound influence on the emergence of his mature style. With Sunset (Estes Park, Colorado) dated 1921, Sandzén becomes more confident in his use of broad, fauve-like strokes of color, applying thick impasto to define the rocks and trees in the foreground. In the background, he retains a pointillist style and thinner application of pink dabs over blue sky and white billowing clouds creating a sense of distance and atmosphere.

Sandzén not only used color and brushwork in a unique way, but also adapted the size and format of his canvases to fit the subject. Inspired by the monumental scale of the Rocky Mountains, Snow and Mountain (The Arapahoe Glacier, Boulder, Colorado) dated 1920, represents one of his earliest examples of large-scale paintings. Commanding a great presence, measuring 60 x 80 inches, the canvas centers on the glacial forces that formed the sheer peaks of the mountain-scape, while the outcrop and three pine trees in the foreground provide the stage for viewing this vast spectacle of nature. In another example, perhaps his largest known oil on canvas, Sunset, Smoky River, Kansas, dated 1921, measures 72 x 151 inches. In this example, the canvas mimics the horizontality of the vast Kansas prairie. This kind of grand-scale American landscape painting has its historical roots in the nineteenth century in the works of artists such as Albert Bierstadt, yet it was not common among the early twentieth-century artists and thus was a practice that set Sandzén apart from his contemporaries.

The most striking example of the way Sandzén employed large-format canvases to immerse the viewer in an experience of place is The Hour of Splendor, Bryce Canyon, Utah, dated 1928, also measuring 60 x 80 inches. Bryce Canyon contains some of the most unusual and spectacular scenery in the world. The canyons resulted from sediment deposits sixty million years ago. These sediments were thrust upward by a powerful force creating the rock formations on a grand scale. Over time, water, ice and wind have eroded the rocks into a dizzying sea of decorative spires and pinnacles. Given his life-long interest in geology, Sandzén would have been aware of the geological history of the site, and his painting commemorates the power of this natural wonder. The monumentality of the scene is emphasized by the vertical thrust of the rock formations that extend beyond the edges of the canvas. The elimination of the middle ground results in a severe tilting of the picture plane placing the viewer on the same level with the scene.

In this composition, Sandzén maintains a sense of realism while at the same time pushing the boundaries of modernism towards abstraction through the rhythmic arrangement of the forms and the dense application of paint. Looking at the details of Sandzén's technique in sculpting individual pinnacles reveals strong vertical planes of warm tones with cross-hatching in complimentary cool tones. The overall result is a kaleidoscopic field of color accentuated by the materiality of a surface created by the thick layering of paint.

Sandzén did not limit himself to painting landscapes -- he created still-life compositions as well as portraits -- but it is in his rendering of canyons and creeks, mountains and mesas that his eye for color seems to offer us a new way of seeing these scenic elements. His distinct palette and powerful tactile use of paint present timeless panoramas through a singularly modern lens.


About the author

Christine Giles is Curator, Palm Springs Art Museum


Resource Library editor's note:

The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on May 14, 2010, with permission of the Palm Springs Art Museum, which was granted to TFAO on May 3, 2010.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Bob Bogard of the Palm Springs Art Museum for his help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text

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